Dancing into Power: The Successful Rehabilitation of Indonesia’s Prabowo Subianto

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Dancing into Power: The Successful Rehabilitation of Indonesia’s Prabowo Subianto

How did an ex-general with such a controversial past manage to scale the pinnacle of Indonesian politics?

Dancing into Power: The Successful Rehabilitation of Indonesia’s Prabowo Subianto

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto arrives at at ceremony where President Joko Widodo presented him with the rank of four-star general in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 28, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Prabowo Subianto

In the tumultuous years of the early 1980s, a young Indonesian military officer took part in a series of combat operations in East Timor, then under Indonesian occupation. During one military campaign in September 1983, several hundred East Timorese were killed by Indonesian troops in an incident known to history as the Kraras Massacre. As one witness later recounted to Timor-Leste’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

When they (Indonesian soldiers) arrived we were given the order to stand up. I was standing, along with everyone else, facing the valley, and soldiers opened fire on us. I fell to the ground, along with my brother. Then I heard two small children, one girl and one boy, about 1-2 years old. When they shot (us), they missed the children. Then Hansip (civil guards) commander…went over to the two babies and took a knife and stabbed them to death. Then the Indonesian [soldiers] and Hansip took another break and had a cigarette.

This heart-wrenching massacre took place under the command of the very officer who would later rise to the rank of lieutenant general in the Indonesian army. Despite the chilling testimonies and damning evidence, the officer has vehemently denied any involvement in the incident. His name is Prabowo Subianto, the son-in-law of the then dictator, Suharto, and now, Indonesia’s president-elect.

Exile and Rehabilitation

Prabowo was unceremoniously dismissed from the military in 1998, several months after the fall of Suharto. He left Indonesia and went into self-imposed exile in Jordan only to return in 2000. He then joined his millionaire brother’s business enterprise and began to rehabilitate himself within the influential Golkar party, which was once led by Suharto. Endowed with financial resources and political influence, Prabowo’s journey toward political rehabilitation had begun. This led to his eventual participation in the presidential races of 2014 and 2019, which despite being unsuccessful, served as evidence of his strategic maneuvering in Indonesian politics.

However, the mood of the Indonesian electorate was changing. The political movement was shifting towards Joko Widodo, fondly known as Jokowi – a political dark horse, an outsider, and an entrepreneur with a clean image. As a politician, he was approachable and accessible – an uncommon characteristic for Indonesia’s political elites. Jokowi would routinely conduct impromptu, informal visits known as blusukan and socialize with commoners, presenting an image that he was one of them – a common citizen who understands the hardship and relates to the people. This archetype, of the hardworking, honest, and humble politician, was something that Prabowo failed to emulate.

But the failed candidacies of 2014 and 2019 did not mark the end of Prabowo’s political life. In a somewhat unexpected twist, Jokowi invited Prabowo to be his defense minister, giving Prabowo’s party a chance to govern while simultaneously co-opting his primary adversary and assimilating them into his grand political coalition. All of this was done in the name of uniting the country and averting polarization – a situation that Jokowi contended would be unfavorable to the country’s economic advancement.

While it may appear as a 180-degree shift in Jokowi’s political position, such developments are not entirely surprising in Indonesian politics. Prabowo had previously thrown his support behind Jokowi during the Jakarta gubernatorial race in 2012. Even preceding this, Prabowo had run as the vice-presidential candidate alongside Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which would later run Jokowi as its presidential candidate in 2014 and 2019. Megawati’s party was known for its reformism and staunch opposition to the Suharto regime.

The shifting dynamics between Prabowo and Jokowi reflect the fluid and amnesic nature of Indonesian politics, which is not ideologically and programmatically strong. Political parties do not sell ideology as would be the case in neighboring India or in some Western democracies. Instead, the country’s politics is a shifting mix of personality politics, seasoned with a degree of fidelity to religion.

Reinventing Prabowo

Prabowo is no Donald Trump – a wildcard entry into politics. He is rather a Narendra Modi, a politician with a tainted past, supported by a formidable and resourceful organizational and political machinery – which he has used gently and imperceptibly to mainstream and rehabilitate his political image. Like Modi, he depicted himself during his campaign as a man of development, focusing on economic issues. Jokowi’s endorsement further solidified this image, with many of Jokowi’s voters perceiving Prabowo as a natural extension of the latter’s administration.

Prabowo appears very far from his past persona. In this year’s election, he managed to transform his image from a hot-tempered populist to a cuddly, adorable grandpa figure who likes to bounce to the rhythm of cheerful music. To bolster this strategy, video footage of him dancing on the campaign stage was disseminated on various social media platforms, with TikTok emerging as the primary battleground. Many analysts argue that this explains Prabowo’s popularity among first-time voters, who may not be aware (or may not even care) of his bloody past actions.

After two defeats, the third time has indeed been the charm for Prabowo. But perhaps this victory is not too surprising. Although many of his old supporters in the last two elections are now supporting another candidate, Anies Baswedan, who filled the oppositional vacuum left by Prabowo, the general is supported by a big-tent coalition that holds the most seats in parliament. However, many consider the most significant support to have come from the incumbent president himself, represented by his eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, Prabowo’s running mate. This led to a decrease in the votes of the third candidate, Ganjar Pranowo, the candidate of the PDI-P, the same party that raised Jokowi.

Asking his former rival to join the coalition is one thing but backing him over his fellow party member is quite another. Jokowi was once emblematic of hope, symbolizing the idea that ordinary individuals without ties to “royal blood” or the military could democratically ascend to the highest office in the country. Nearly a decade later, the president paved the way for 36-year-old Gibran not only to secure the ticket but also the vice presidency itself, a feat unprecedented among his predecessors.

To put Gibran on the ballot, the eligibility criteria were modified by a Constitutional Court ruling in October. It is worth mentioning that the presiding judge in this proceeding was none other than Jokowi’s brother-in-law and Gibran’s uncle.

Prabowo’s Future Agenda

The precise rationale behind Jokowi’s controversial move remains obscure, yet it can at least be narrowed down through several speculations or a combination thereof. Viewed most favorably, Jokowi wants the next president to continue his development agenda. Viewed in the worst light, he seeks to perpetuate his power. The construction of a new capital city in Borneo and the policy of banning the export of strategic raw materials such as nickel and bauxite are two policies that are worth highlighting. As long as these programs are carried out by his successor, Jokowi appears unperturbed by criticisms from civil society that he is seeking to build a political dynasty. Whatever Jokowi’s exact motive may be, the stubborn fact remains that he chose to compromise on democratic principles in pursuit of his agenda.

The other pressing question that confronts us is how will Prabowo rule. How will he wield power and authority? What is his own agenda in the absence of Jokowi? Who is he really at his core? Will this union between Jokowi and Prabowo endure?

For the time being, the authors do not offer a definitive answer. One thing is nevertheless certain: Prabowo’s rehabilitation has been fully realized, with Jokowi playing the central role. His past, which ostensibly should have rendered him politically ostracized, was normalized instead. The conferment of an honorary four-star general rank upon Prabowo by the president, just two weeks after the election, stands as the most recent embodiment of his resurgence. His upcoming inauguration as Indonesia’s eighth president in October, therefore, will mark the culmination of his whitewashing.

A Jokowi-backed Prabowo may have succeeded in polishing his public image as a reformed figure who is poised to continue the current president’s agenda, presenting himself as a moderate. But the memories of old Prabowo – a strongman with authoritarian inclinations – remain ingrained in the minds of those who recall history and are unwilling to overlook it. The collective effort to hold him accountable may prove more challenging than at any time in the post-Suharto era. Nonetheless, there is a pressing need to ensure that democratic norms do not erode further under his presidency, after a degree of backsliding under the current incumbent.